What You Resist, Persists

by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.

Social awareness of depression is at an all-time high right now. I think the growing willingness of people to openly discuss their own struggles is a huge development in the emotional intelligence of our society.  As an acupuncturist, I look at depression through the lens of Chinese Five-Element philosophy. 

Of the Five-Element personality types, the Water type is the most likely to struggle with depression. Waters are deeply introspective and have an amazing capacity for finding meaning and wisdom in life. Waters like to take their time and go with the flow, prioritizing comfort over efficiency. Waters can talk eloquently for hours about philosophical and other topics of real substance, but might not be too interested in small talk. Many of our most beloved artists have been Water types: Kurt Cobain, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro, Ernest Hemingway.

While Waters are great at going deep and being introspective, that approach can get them stuck when it comes to painful memories. They can end up hiding and isolating themselves, overwhelmed with despair.  Fear is the emotion associated with the Water element. Waters are great at seeing everything that could possibly go wrong, but that fear of what might go wrong often paralyzes them and prevents them from moving forward. According to the Chinese Five-Element perspective, the Water personality needs to learn to have courage to overcome fear and move forward. That sort of approach is the strength of the Wood element.

The Wood personality is fearless—she picks a path and just goes for it. She’s not afraid of taking a misstep because she knows she can handle whatever arises. Woods can be great friends and coaches for Waters, giving them that inspiration to get out there and a plan of action for success. Many people who’ve lost a ton of weight with radical changes in their diet and exercise habits are Waters who have been coached up by Woods.

But very often there ends up being a difficult event that comes up—the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a stressful situation at work—that brings up those old feelings of fear, shame, and inadequacy. And then the Water spirals back into depression and their old coping mechanisms—food, alcohol, drugs, escapism, whatever.

So what’s the alternative if we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives running or numbing ourselves from our painful emotions? Are we just supposed to dwell on them and wallow in misery? Isn’t that what’s causing the problem?

I don’t think so—at least not anymore. When I first got into meditation and eventually Chinese medicine, I saw my spiritual practice as a way of conquering my emotions and finding peace through discipline. But in that struggle with my emotions, they just seemed to get bigger and bigger and harder to avoid.

I’m pretty stubborn, but it eventually started to dawn on me that maybe the way to true peace is through accepting my emotions rather than trying to push them away. And it turns out many spiritual teachers and psychologists (and my wife) have been saying this for a long time—I just wasn’t ready to hear it. Carl Jung maybe said it best when he said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

Water needs the support of Earth in order to find courage—and the biggest strength of the Earth element is compassion. Real transformation happens for Waters when they develop the ability to have compassion, understanding, and forgiveness for themselves. That way they can choose a path forward and not beat up on themselves too much when they take a wrong step.

Seeking help from some sort of therapist or counselor is so important for people suffering from depression. It’s easy for people suffering from depression (especially men) to think they understand their problem and what to do about it—they think just need to have the discipline to do the right things they need to do.

But the main reason why a therapist or counselor is so helpful isn’t because they’re going to tell you what to do—it’s because they’re going to show you compassion. Yes, they’re going to offer you compassion, but they’re also going to show you what compassion looks like. And ideally that compassion becomes infectious—you start to believe that not only are you deserving of compassion from others, you’re deserving of compassion from yourself. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to move forward when you’re not always cutting yourself down.

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The Benefits of Flexibility: A Lesson from the Wood Element

by Clark Zimmerman

My daughter continues to be one of my greatest teachers. Though she can be impatient from time to time, I am amazed at her ability to be flexible with whatever life gives her in the moment. Like a young sapling, she bends with the changing winds of the moment. I recently had a chance to put some of her wisdom to good use. Last weekend I had one of those travel weekends. I went to a class in Oakland and experienced three flight delays on the way down, and three more delays on my return flight. When all was said and done I ended up spending nine hours waiting to go somewhere. In the past this would have created a lot of stress and irritation. This time was different though. Instead of reacting to a problem that I couldn’t change I decided to to remain flexible and try to relax into what the day would bring.

A healthy tree or plant must have a balanced combination of strength and flexibility. The archetypical example of healthy Wood in Taoist philosophy is bamboo: It is strong enough to build a thirty-story scaffolding, but it will bend over and touch the ground in a heavy snowfall. Taoist tradition says that when Wood embodies the right balance of strength and flexibility, it can manifest its virtue of benevolence. You can witness this virtue by watching a seed as it grows into a tree. The seed sprouts and regardless of the obstacles that it faces, it continues its relentless movement toward the light. If a sapling is bent by a falling branch of a larger tree, it will simply bend and continue its growth. Of course to do this a tree must be flexible. As a tree ages, it tends to become more rigid. It relies more on strength to resist or overcome its challenges, and less on an ability to bend. This is fine when the weight of a problem isn’t too much to bear, but the moment the load is greater than the strength of a limb…snap, the limb breaks off. We can see that no matter the insult that is suffered, a tree will always bend and seek the light. This is a example of the benevolence of the Wood element.

When I was stuck at the airport, I flashed to previous experiences of getting stranded in airports. I remembered the time I raised my voice at the ticket counter lady; I thought of several occasions of worry and anger that didn’t solve any problem, rather only made me more exhausted when I finally did arrive at my destination. So this time I thought of how my flexible 4-year-old daughter would handle the change of schedule. She wouldn’t know that it was an annoying inconvenience. She would simply do what she always does and be completely present in the moment and orient towards the light of curiosity and enjoyment . I made a conscious choice to bend with the weight of the situation and turn it into a positive, and the grandest thing happened: It actually turned into a great nine hours. I met a few wonderful people, I read half of a book that I had wanted to read for months, and I was reminded that the moment is where life is happening, whether I embrace it or not.

The ability to remain flexible remains one of the most helpful skills that one can develop. To be able to remain flexible while reaching toward the light can turn a difficult situation into a more positive experience.

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Ann Zimmerman, LAc.

Ann was born and raised in a small town in Northern Indiana where she grew up among many generations of her family. The large influences of her childhood and young adult life came via her passion for soccer and traveling. Thru many years of playing soccer she learned about the physical limitations of the body and how to be part of a team, leading her to an athletic scholarship at the University of Florida. Having had the opportunity to travel at a young age illuminated Ann’s curiosity and respect for the diversity among people, systems of medicine, religions, landscapes, etc. It was after her first trip to Asia that her passion for eastern medicine and and philosophy was officially ignited. This trip also sparked an interest in the practice of yoga, meditation, and herbs, eventually leading to her undergraduate major of Cultural Anthropology. After college, Ann knew she wanted to help people and to work with plants. This led her to Chinese medicine. After a personal healing experience using acupuncture she knew she had found her path.

After four years of study, she received a Master’s degree from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Upon completion of the program she married her study buddy and co-owner of Middleway Medicine, Clark Zimmerman and the two of them set out on a 6 month study/honeymoon in Asia. In 2005, they founded Middleway Medicine Acupuncture and Herbal clinic and began their healing work in Talent, Oregon. Middleway offers the service of individualized care based on Traditional Chinese medical diagnosis, using the tools of acupuncture, herbal medicine, shiatsu, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling.

Ann is NCCAOM certified and state licensed in Oregon to practice acupuncture and herbal medicine.

She is nearly fluent in Spanish, and is a certified Qigong instructor.

She has continued her studies with a focus on Women’s health; menses, fertility, pregnancy, and menopause and a strong emphasis on meditation, nutrition, and personal development.

She feels her strength as a healer is her sincerity to be present and compassionate with each of her patients. 

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